Ireland’s Wars: The Donegal Campaign

Having looked at the beginnings of the Irish Civil War in Dublin and in its surrounding areas to the south and north, in this entry I want to commence a look at what Michael Hopkinson dubbed “the war in the localities”. The largest part of the fighting in the conventional Civil War was going to take place in Munster, but before that happened hostilities had commenced all over the country, in every part of every province, to some degree. Here, I want to take a look at that period in Donegal, the farthest north that the authority of the provisional government nominally extended to, where to some extent the Civil War was being fought for weeks before its designated beginning.

As previous entries would have made clear, Donegal was an area divided sharply between pro and anti-Treaty, with many towns and villages held by either side, and in some cases both. The two strands of the IRA split had fought together against the British military incursion of the Pettigo/Belleek area only a short time before, but now very rapidly were taking up arms against each other. Donegal was one of many places that saw a carefully planned build-up of National Army troops strength in the run-up to the opening of hostilities, and pro-Treaty strength was concentrated more heavily in the north of the county. 100 men arrived in Letterkenny in later June, while garrisons in Buncrana and Ballybofey were bolstered. On the other side, the coming of the war caught the republicans somewhat off guard, they having remained more firmly of the mind that operations against the British military, and Northern Ireland, were more likely than a civil struggle. That did not stop them from seizing vehicles on the “southern” side of the border, or stop them hijacking trains, an activity that was causing an increasing amount of disquiet in local and government circles. These men held nominally a very large amount of territory, with units and bases all over the county. But, as they were to find out, it was only “nominal”, and the IRA position was more exposed than they might have realised.

What we can call the Donegal campaign was essentially decided in the opening days of the conflict, as the National Army forces, under Joe Sweeney, almost immediately went on the attack. Sweeney had the advantage of finding out about what was happening in Dublin earlier than many, from none other than a honeymooning Sean Mac Eoin, who was soon to abandon his marital holiday and take up command of pro-Treaty troops in Connacht. Sweeney and his men were a marked contrast to the republicans, who were in a state of disarray: many of their officers were actually in Dublin at the time of the Four Courts attack, and took a while to get back to their home areas. One of them, Sean Lehane, was obliged to walk back after getting as far as Sligo, and arrived some time after the outbreak of hostilities. In such circumstances it is understandable that the anti-Treaty forces in Dublin were sedentary and reactive, but the end result was always going to be in favour of the provisional government.

One of the first blows was at Finner Camp, a military barracks occupied by around 50 men of the anti-Treaty forces near the border with Sligo. On the 29th, National Army forces rapidly surrounded the barracks and then opened fire on its occupants. Two hours later, with two Volunteers dead, the garrison surrendered. It was a scene that was repeated all over the county in those opening few days, with varying amounts of casualties. Anti-Treaty positions in Letterkenny, Ballyshannon, Rappoe, Burnfoot and Bundoran were all attacked and neutralised in a matter of days, with Sweeney leading a “column” of troops around the countryside through the use of Crossley Tenders and railways. Sweeney had wanted an armoured car to be sure of success, but was able to make do without one. In the course of this sweep, dozens of Executive IRA personnel fell into pro-Treaty hands, many of them without a fight.

The story was largely the same wherever the pro-Treaty soldiers went: the building that the IRA had occupied, usually a RIC barracks or country house or similar, was surrounded, the occupants were ordered to surrender, a firefight would result and under the weight of pro-Treaty rifles, machine guns and bombs, the Executives would be compelled to give up. In some places, like Buncrana, no firing was necessary, as the IRA either acceded to the inevitable and surrendered without resistance, or slipped away without offering a fight. Columns were caught out in the open countryside, and left with no choice but to throw down their arms. The south of the county rapidly secured, Sweeney moved north. From a position where some thought the pro-Treaty side could be bottled up in the north-west, it was now the IRA that was in danger of such restriction, as positions in Buncrana, then Clonmany, then Carndonagh all fell, sometimes without any significant resistance. Numerous key IRA units, including several flying columns, were taken prisoner. Eoin O’Duffy, attempting to coordinate from Dublin, thought the likelihood of victory so high that he refused to authorise the sending of any precious artillery pieces to the area.

The IRA in the area, under the command of the Charlie Daly, were reeling. He had been an officer of the 1st Southern Division, who had been appointed O/C of the 2nd Northern Division late during the War of Independence, and retained nominal control of anti-Treaty IRA from that unit. He set up a command at Glenveagh Castle, on the shores of Lough Beagh in the north of the county, and from there tried to organise some form of more solid resistance. It was a failing effort: the IRA left in Donegal were too scattered to be truly considered a major threat. Incredibly ambitious notions of launching an assault over the border into Derry, in order to provoke a British counter-attack that could unite the Irish factions, was considered and even partially implemented, but did not get too far.

It took the better part of a week for the IRA to be in a position to attempt any kind of offensive operation themselves, and when it came they were ineffective ones that did little to dislodge or discommode the National Army. A series of isolated attacks took place on pro-Treaty barracks and other positions, in towns like Lifford, mostly just small-scale exchanges of fire to very little practical purpose. The days of the IRA taking down defended barracks in this manner were gone, and the anti-Treaty forces did not have the men or the supplies in Donegal to make a serious impact. Both sides took a few wounded, but the National Army was not dissuaded from its work, and the republicans expended ammunition that they already had precious little of. By now they were obligated to retreat into the countryside and essentially begin guerrilla operations, nearly two more months before the IRA in the rest of the country were forced to do the same.

The anti-Treaty IRA was able to enact a few ambushes of National Army positions and convoys, with fatal results. At Drumkeen on the 11th July, two soldiers were killed in a brief engagement. In Stranalor two days later, two further casualties were inflicted in a similar ambush. The pro-Treay side, despite their dominance, were still sometimes prone to exposing themselves to danger too. But such things were as much as the republicans were able to accomplish in the county, suddenly bereft as they were, lacking numbers, strong leadership, adequate supplies or adequate support from locals. Daly and others were stung by the venom of the Catholic Church’s invective against them from the pulpits after such attacks, and forced to realise the lack of support that they had from the countryside. Before too long, the provisional government forces were on the attack again, with a notable incident in Lough Inch on the 15th July. Then, a column of anti-Treaty Volunteers was surrounded and forced to surrender after a brief bombardment by temporarily available artillery. It was something that the IRA had no answer for.

Sweeney was not of a mind to draw out the conflict in Donegal if he could, and made an informal approach to Daly. He offered to allow the southern men to depart the county, with their arms, if they made a commitment not to join in the fighting against the provisional government elsewhere. Daly refused. But he was left in a very unenviable position, stuck with decreasing men, supplies and morale in a country that was increasingly difficult to operate in. With provisional government forces closing in, Glenveagh was abandoned without a fight. Daly’s own direct command got smaller by the day, between desertions or expulsions of those seemed “spies and traitors”: he claimed later that having started the Civil War with a hundred men, he was down to less than 30 only a short time later. Just getting by the sparsely populated and bare Donegal countryside was challenge enough, before one factors in the encounters with the enemy.

Daly and others did not want to give up on Donegal entirely, but by the autumn the IRA in the area was only “faking fight”, as one officer put it, surviving off the charity of some sympathetic locals and incapable of making any impact on the provisional government’s war effort. Daly’s command had split off into smaller units, and many of these had been captured soon after. Numerous men and small groups left the county to fight what they thought was a more useful role elsewhere and by September only two small units were recorded as being active in different parts of Donegal. The arrest of Daly, in Dunlewy in early November, precipitated the final collapse and, before the end of the year, IRA commanders would order the effort in the county completely abandoned, long after the end of the conventional war. Daly’s part in that struggle was not over however, and he would be part of a grim postscript to the Donegal fighting the following year.

The Civil War in Donegal was yet another example of anti-Treaty weakness becoming rapidly apparent, even from a position of apparent strength. From having bases and garrisons throughout the county when the conflict began, the IRA rapidly collapsed in the face of a quick provisional government assault, hamstrung by their own ineffective garrison strategy, a lack of men, a lack of leadership, limited arms and transport options, and lack of support from the rest of the country. Sweeney and his forces were able to defeat the IRA in detail, taking out one position at a time, so much so that within a week the IRA was all but defeated in the county. Everything that happened afterwards was just an exercise in delaying the inevitable, as the IRA’s Donegal war became an ineffective guerrilla campaign, that was never truly in a position to be an impediment to the provisional government.

This was something that was going to be repeated in other parts of Ireland before the conventional Civil War was over. Next week, we will move south and west to discuss the early months of the Civil War in the counties of Connacht. Like Donegal, this was to be a conflict of isolated engagements across a wide, sparsely populated, area, and like Donegal it was going to have a similar result.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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9 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: The Donegal Campaign

  1. Paul Curley says:

    Wasn’t Charie daly O/C 2nd Northern Division, not 1st Southern Division?

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  7. Kevin Ó Tuathaigh says:

    Excellent analysis. You really know your stuff! Donegal, like Wexford and Kerry are great examples of counties which did relatively little in the War of Independence, and yet were quite violent in the Civil War. In Donegal, it seems to have been mostly Cork and Kerry blow-ins who did most of the shooting however.

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